Article Note: David Robinson and Ryan Tafilowski, “Conflict and Concession: Nationality in the Pastorate for Althaus and Bonhoeffer”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 1 (March 2019)

Article Note: David Robinson and Ryan Tafilowski, “Conflict and Concession: Nationality in the Pastorate for Althaus and Bonhoeffer,” Scottish Journal of Theology 70, no. 2 (May 2017): 127-46.

By Victoria J. Barnett, U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum*

Paul Althaus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are generally understood to be at opposite ends of the theological and political spectrum during the Nazi era. Althaus interpreted Lutheran theology to support a volkisch understanding of church, leading him to welcome the rise of the Nazi state. Bonhoeffer’s early opposition to such interpretations was the beginning of the path that ended with his resistance and execution by the Nazis.

There were some interesting parallels between the two during the late 1920s, however, and that is the focus of this article. At a historical moment when Germans were searching for a new kind of national community, both Althaus and Bonhoeffer wrote works about the nature of the church as community: Althaus’ Communio Sanctorum: Die Gemeinde im lutherischen Kirchengedanken (1929) and Bonhoeffer’s dissertation Sanctorum Communio: Eine dogmatische Untersuchung zur Soziologie der Kirche, which was published in 1930. Bonhoeffer was preparing his dissertation for publication just as the Althaus book came out, so he could not have read it, and in any case, the two drew different conclusions about the community of the church in a way that presaged their subsequent divisions during the Kirchenkampf. For Althaus, the church had to be an expression of the national community and its traditions. In contrast, Bonhoeffer understood the community of the church theologically and Christologically, as the place where the risen Christ was proclaimed in the world, an understanding that was inherently transnational.

Both also served pastorates in the late 1920s in expatriate German settings (Althaus in Poland; Bonhoeffer in Spain). The authors contend that their respective experiences in these expatriate settings led each man to a deepened sense of national German identity and the development of a “competitive philosophy of history that would come to form a fundamental element of National Socialist ideology.” There are some problems here, the main one being the attempt to draw extensive comparative conclusions despite the relative paucity of evidence about this aspect in Bonhoeffer’s thought. While the development of Paul Althaus’ nationalist theology is well-documented, the primary evidence in the case of Bonhoeffer consists of one 1929 lecture, “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic,” delivered when Bonhoeffer was serving the parish in Barcelona.

That lecture is indeed nationalistic, speaking of the inevitability of conflict between different peoples, describing ethics “as a matter of blood and a matter of history,” and declaring that there is a “German ethic.” I would add there were other signs during the 1920s that Bonhoeffer was drawn for a time toward nationalism, joining a conservative nationalist (and antisemitic) fraternity and briefly participating in military exercises in the Schwarze Reichswehr. One lecture does not constitute an “expatriate theology” of nationality, however, and there are enough critical texts by Bonhoeffer during that same period to suggest caution. As the authors acknowledge, by the early 1930s Bonhoeffer was espousing pacifism, giving anti-war lectures in the United States, and criticizing the increasingly nationalist theological tone among German theologians, including their misinterpretation of Luther’s concept of “orders of creation” to justify ethno-nationalist policies. Notably, in 1931 Bonhoeffer directly challenged Althaus when the latter attacked the ecumenical movement.

The authors also note the “troubling ambivalence” of both thinkers with regard to the 1933 debates about how the church should respond to the “Jewish question.” They provide a comparative analysis of Althaus’ 1933 Erlangen Gutachten in support of a church Aryan paragraph and Bonhoeffer’s 1933 essays “The Church and the Jewish Question” and “Theses on the Aryan paragraph in the Church,” which opposed the Aryan paragraph. While Althaus and Bonhoeffer arrived at opposing conclusions about the acceptability of the Aryan paragraph, both treated the “Jewish question” as a problem that the state and church would have to address, and Bonhoeffer’s anti-Jewish paragraph in “The Church and the Jewish Question” is particularly problematic. Clearly their respective understandings of the church’s relationship to state and nation shaped how both Althaus and Bonhoeffer addressed the 1933 debates, and just as clearly at this stage, Bonhoeffer was still working through his theological approach to these issues.

Despite what to my mind are some over-generalized conclusions, this article is worth reading. As the authors correctly note, Bonhoeffer scholars have tended to dismiss the nationalism of the Barcelona lecture as well as the problematic aspects of Bonhoeffer’s 1933 “Church and the Jewish Question” and his “Theses on the Aryan paragraph in the Church.” These difficult texts, however, pose challenges that need to be addressed historically and theologically, and for that reason it is useful to compare and contrast Bonhoeffer with figures like Althaus. Since in recent years there has been a revived interest in understanding Bonhoeffer’s approach to Lutheran theology, this article opens up some important areas for further examination by scholars, particularly with regard to where and why Bonhoeffer disagreed with the pre-eminent Lutheran scholar of his day.

* The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.